It’s a fairy tale right out of Cinderella! A young carhop named Leonora (Maude) Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), meets and marries dashing tri-zillionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and soon settles in for a life of ease and plenty. Jewelry, dresses, minks—plus a gaw-jus house complete with swimming pool, perfect for lunching around in the afternoons. Only in America, friends…and they both lived happily ever after.
Nah, I’m just jinkin’ ya—what seems to be a fairy tale soon turns into the stuff of nightmares. For starters, Ohlrig isn’t the marrying kind—he’s a petulant child who’s never grown up, and when he doesn’t get his way he has “heart attacks”; there’s nothing even wrong with his ticker—it’s just his psychosomatic way of dealing with defeat. He’s neurotic and paranoid—he only married Leonora because his analyst (Art Smith) casually remarked that he’d never entertain thoughts of wedded bliss. And married life is certainly no picnic for our heroine; Smith is a workaholic who expects her to be at his beck-and-call (even at 3am in the morning)—like Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane, Leonora Eames Ohlrig is a literal prisoner inside her husband’s cold and unwelcoming mansion.
Leonora makes a break for it. She leaves Ohlrig, and after taking humble—very humble—lodgings, convinces a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason) to hire her as a receptionist for him and his obstetrician partner Hoffman (Frank Ferguson). Leonora is inexperienced, but she’s quite good with children; Quinada decides to take a chance on her but after two weeks is most unsatisfied with her job performance and isn’t shy about letting her know at the top of his lungs. Stung by the chewing out, Leonora, in a moment of weakness, agrees to return to Smith when he promises to turn over a new leaf. This lasts as long as a one-night stand; she learns the next morning from his lackey Franzi Karlos (Curt Bois) that Ohlrig expects her to accompany him on a cross-country tour of his plants and properties, ever acting the dutiful wife.
So Leonora gets out for good. Feeling a little under the weather, she’s told by Dr. Hoffman that she’s got a bun in the oven…and apparently it’s from Ohlrig Bakeries. She asks Hoffman not to let Larry know, but things get further complicated when the doc asks her to become Mrs. Dr. Quinada. She returns to Ohlrig Manor, and Larry goes after her…and that’s when he learns that she’s married to Smith. But Smith is a reasonable guy: he’ll grant her a divorce in order to allow her to marry Larry…and all she has to do is give up the baby when it’s born.
Caught (1949) was an adaptation of Libbie Block’s novel Wild Calendar (the screenplay was penned by Arthur Laurents, also responsible for Rope and West Side Story), a book in which the cruelly narcissistic antagonist, Smith Ohlrig, was loosely patterned on the real-life Howard Hughes. French director Max Ophüls (billed in the credits as Max Opuls) had worked with Hughes briefly at RKO on Vendetta in 1946 (a film that was eventually released four years later), but because he was unceremoniously fired from that project decided to embark on a vendetta of his own. He and Laurents made Ohlrig a caricature beyond just merely a paranoiac—he was transformed into a full borne psychopath. Ophüls found the perfect actor to convey Ohlrig’s rat bastardness in Robert Ryan, who at that time was enjoying the fruits of onscreen menace with memorable roles in Crossfire (1947) and Act of Violence (1948). In fact, according to film editor Robert Parrish (later a director in his own right), Ryan had gotten Hughes’ okay to imitate him in the film; Parrish claimed that the reclusive rich guy asked him to smuggle out some of the rushes so he could check out Bob’s performance.
It’s a showy role for Ryan as he plays Smith Ohlrig as a power-hungry individual yet with little emotional attachment; he only married Leonora to spite his psychiatrist, and once wed treats her no better than he would one of his underlings. Smith torments his wife with mind games, expressed visually by his obsession with playing a pinball machine in his den or how he nonchalantly rolls a cue ball along his pool table at the same time he and Leonora are debating the very serious subject of the farce that their marriage has become. The only thing that matters to Smith Ohlrig is that he is the winner; he doesn’t like to lose, and that’s why he’s determined that Leonora give up the one thing that means the most to her—her unborn baby—as the ticket to her freedom.
Leonora Ames is first viewed by the audience leafing through magazines with her friend Maxine (Ruth Brady), and admiring all of the lovely things she cannot afford on her meager salary as a carhop. Leonora will scrimp and save to afford tuition to a charm school run by Dorothy Dale (Natalie Schafer), and there’s an interesting commentary on her pursuit of this goal in that it cynically suggests a woman is incapable of landing a husband unless she undergoes a transformation both mentally and physically (Ms. Ames later lands a job as a “model,” where she meet Ohlrig’s stooge Franzi and is invited to a party aboard Smith’s yacht). Later, when she is gainfully employed by Quinada and Hoffman, Dr. Larry gives her a right pranging because he believes Leonora doesn’t take the position seriously enough. He later realizes he was being a bit of a douche and asks her to come back; Leonora then applies herself by taking shorthand and typing courses and wins the respect (as well as the attentions—wink wink) of Quinada. Engaging and likable female protagonists are featured prominently in Ophüls’ American cinematic output, like the previous Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and the subsequent The Reckless Moment (1949).
James Mason’s character isn’t as richly written as the Ohlrigs…but he gets away with it because he’s the dedicated doctor working on the lower strata of society and because he’s freaking James Mason, an actor with so much charisma I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of hitting on him myself. Setting aside an intended career as an architect, Mason soon became an audience favorite in films like The Seventh Veil (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947), and would play the leading man in Ophüls’ final U.S. film, The Reckless Moment. None of the four films made by Max in this country set the box office on fire, so he returned to his native France and made masterpieces like La Ronde (1950), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) and Lola Montes (1955). French critics had much more appreciation for Max’s work than American audiences; Jean-Luc Godard once heralded Caught as Ophüls’ finest American film. Max himself argued that “the film goes off the rails toward the end, but up to the last 10 minutes, it wasn’t bad.” (I personally would argue in favor of Unknown Woman.)
Still, I think I’m more fond of Caught than many of its critics; the star trio do extremely well in their roles, with fine turns by a supporting cast in Ferguson, Schafer, Bois (the guy in Casablanca who warns “there are vultures everywhere”), Smith and Brady; keep an eye peeled for future TV mom Barbara Billingsley as one of the women checking out Bel Geddes’ mink in an early part of the film. Caught has been called a noir in many quarters, largely due to its subject matter (Bel Geddes tries to fast track the American Dream) and psychological overtones (Ohlrig’s illness)—plus it has some incredible low-key lighting from Academy Award winner Lee Garmes. I’m also mesmerized by the art direction by Frank Paul Sylos; Sylos and Ophüls are quite successful in establishing the contrast between the doctors’ office and Leonora’s apartment—shabby but inviting—and the mausoleum that is Ohlrig House, where it’s impossible for love to take root.
Caught would be the last film to be produced at The Enterprise Studios, a company co-founded by actor John Garfield with David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld; Enterprise tasted box office triumph with Julie’s Body and Soul (1947)…but Force of Evil (1948) did not do so hot, and the writing was on the wall as far as Enterprise went. Though Caught was released by MGM, it eventually wound up in the possession of Republic Pictures, who released it to VHS in the 1980s (when I first saw the film)…but it was a long time coming to DVD; I purchased the Region 2 DVD released in 2003 (from France!) and kept that under wraps until Olive Films gave it the Blu-ray/DVD treatment in July of this year. It’s a pretty swell-looking print (restoration was done on the movie in 1992, financed by Martin Scorsese) and I’m quite pleased with the purchase. Ignore most of the reviews at Amazon.com, because I have heard more than a few rumors that those people are Philistines.